Evangelicals should read this novel

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Cover of "The Book of Strange New Things"

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Cover of "The Book of Strange New Things"

Cover of "The Book of Strange New Things"

Cover of “The Book of Strange New Things”

Once upon a time, God asked Moses what country he wanted for his people. Moses wanted California, but being a stammerer, he only managed to say: “Ca…Ca…Ca…” Replied God: “You want Canaan, you’ll get Canaan!”

It’s an old joke, but after enduring the Israeli election on spring break in Yosemite and the Bay Area (Point Reyes to Palo Alto, the Golden Gate to the Berkeley Hills), I do wish Moses hadn’t had that speech impediment. On the other hand, unless it rains during next year’s rainy season, California is going to look like Canaan pretty soon.

Speaking of climate change (which I can, not being employed by the State of Florida), I spent part of the time reading The Book of Strange New Things, British author Michel Faber’s remarkable new novel about an evangelical pastor’s mission to the inhabitants of a far-away planet at a time when natural disasters are bringing life as we know it on Earth to an end.

The book has attracted a lot of attention because of its beautiful rendering of the relationship between the pastor and his wife, who is not chosen to go with him — and the biographical fact that Faber’s wife Eva was dying of cancer as he wrote the book. What has attracted much less attention is Faber’s portrait of the husband as Christian missionary.

For reasons that ultimately become clear, Peter Leighton has been signed up for his ministry by USIC, a mysterious multinational corporation that is establishing a colony on the planet Oasis. Thanks to a previous missionary, some of the natives — human-like Oasans — have embraced Christianity and need a new pastor. Leighton brings them the gospel in his preaching, his behavior, and his conveying of the Bible, which they call “The Book of Strange New Things.” (Underscoring the title, the novel’s pages are themselves gilt-edged.)

Peter’s wife is named Beatrice, called Bea (a near anagram of Eva), a nurse  who, we learn, rescued and converted him from a life of addiction and crime. The book amounts to the Purgatorio in a kind of reverse Divine Comedy, a journey from Paradise to Hell, so to speak — but let me not give too much away. Peter comes out of it a better man, though a more troubled Christian. While the Earth is sliding into chaos, he does not expect an imminent Rapture, believing that the pre-millennialist End Times scenario is based on a misreading of Scripture.

I’d like to know what Americans evangelicals make of Peter, but perhaps because Faber does not claim to be a Christian, The Book of Strange New Things seems to have attracted little notice in their circles. For my money, it’s got a lot more going for it, religiously speaking, than the sci-fi allegories of C.S. Lewis.

  • Glenn Harrell

    Sales 101

    I may read it, but I am curious to know why you think I “should” as an Evangelical. Evangelicals are all to good at “shoulding” others but hate it when it comes at them.

    Mr. Roddenberry, of Star Trek fame, tried his best to save the earth while converting all creatures in the outer-dimensions. The best he could do was glue on odd shapes to the ever boring human body as we have known it for time.
    Those “non-human” beings challenged our old school belief systems by revealing imperfections and prejudices on our part as humans–demanding we convert; Insisting that we repent of our ways. These confessions did not come easy. But, such confession is good for the soul though it rarely has lasting converts. (sounds like an episode of Cops 2015)

    The plot of this book, for all its hokey fantasy, is more of the same.

    Words like strange and new are not strange and new. They are necessary, as the latest new exercise machine info-com, to convince the public–“You should” buy this. We promise–it is not predictable and old.” sales 101.

    And I doubt Mr. Lewis would have been threatened by the Silkster’s money, yours or mine, going for the Faber Fable.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I reviewed it for the DMN. I liked it a lot. And not just for the intelligent portrayal of an orthodox (lower “o”) Christian pastor as the hero. http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20141122-fiction-review-the-book-of-strange-new-things-by-michel-faber.ece

  • I read this one based on a NYT review, and was ultimately very disappointed. Perhaps it was my inherent dislike of apocalyptic narratives, perhaps not, but I found it hard to get involved with any of the characters except the abandoned wife. And while it’s probably not the correct Christian view, it seemed to me unconscionable that while the person to whom the pastor had committed himself, supposedly “forsaking all others,” REALLY needed him, he was off somewhere out in the galaxy attempting to minister to beings he didn’t truly understand, who might or might not even appreciate his efforts, let alone his sacrifice. Ultimately, I found the book a frustrating waste of time and effort (mine AND the author’s).